MILAN – Gian Zaniol has a very rich CV: first head barista at Chapter One, a coffeeshop where Nora Smahelova was also a member, currently Lead Barista at Coffee Circle Berlin as well as brand ambassador for two companies Manument Coffee and Brita italia. Let’s not forget his success as Italian brewing champion 2017. He too chose to develop his career by going abroad, to Germany, and now shares his experience with us.
Zaniol, how did your journey in this industry begin?
“It all started with coffee 11 years ago. I’ve been working in gastronomy since I was 14 years old. My father has always worked in this field, so I’m a bit of a work of art. Coffee was a chance encounter. I moved to Berlin, without speaking a word of German and English very badly. I looked for any kind of job, until I ended up in a coffee shop, totally ignoring the reality of specialty coffee (in Venice I was the classic ignorant barista). My partner, her fault, thought it might be the right profession for me, so I brought my CV and got hired at Godshot Future coffee Klub. I discovered that coffee was not what I thought it was and that a lot of the information I was taking as absolute truths, was questionable.
The first push was to understand it.
It took me a while to appreciate the acidity of the specialty coffees: in Italy I had almost stopped drinking coffee in general until I discovered that the problem was the blend and the quality, not the drink itself, and the excessive presence of Robusta. At Chapter One with Nora, everything changed: she was the first one who invested in me, seeing a potential to be cultivated. She made me do the championships. Filter coffee was not yet a popular thing in Italy, there was a lot of scepticism: her idea was to bring an Italian to compete with this method of extraction. My first competition went well, I prepared a lot for 4 months and I had two competent people following me Stefano Domatiotis, world champion Brewing 2014 and Nora.”
So you didn’t take any training courses?
“I learned everything on the field. For me, it was an aces’ poker to end up at Chapter One: Nora is a judge for the Wbc and is in charge of controlling the Ast, she does the exams for those who will become trainers. She is one of the best known names in the world. Having her as a mentor has allowed me to train professionally as an alternative to the modules that Sca rightly proposes. ”
When did Zaniol decide he had to leave Italy and why Germany? What is the specialty scene like there? And how is the figure of the bartender seen? Is there also someone there who improvises?
“My partner is German and had moved to Berlin. We decided to meet there. I realised that this job is understood in a completely different way than in Italy, where it is seen as a stopgap or a small job most of the time. People come to Berlin specifically to be bartenders, a city where there are supposedly more than 50 specialty coffee shops. In the environment there are landmarks like The Barn, Bonanza, Five Elephant. The competition is very high and so here and especially in northern Europe, it’s quite a heated reality. Everyone works at their best and you raise the quality that way. There is a sense of community in doing business as well, beyond friendship.”
How can you differentiate?
“It is difficult to differentiate. There are different styles of coffee for different types of customer. The Barn offers strong acidity, light roasts. We, as Coffee Circle, target a wider audience, we roast a bit darker and we may not fit into the niche of super specialty experts, but we are definitely the link that connects the general public to the specialty. There is, of course, also the market dedicated to traditional Italian coffee, for which there is much demand. The rules of the coffee shop are followed everywhere: there is a lot of training, promoted directly by the employers themselves. A barista is hired, who will do just that and must be able to cope with large volumes, quality control and manage stress.
But the customers also have a different approach: they come here to drink calmly. They want a more relaxed experience, and the customer is happy to wait an extra five minutes for the perfect cappuccino. In cities like Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Frankfurt, the specialty is a trend that is pushing a lot and is very trendy.
The customer has a different awareness, he knows he will pay more (here a single espresso costs two euros 20, and that’s still not much!) for a product of a certain level that requires a certain time to be prepared. Then there is always someone who has to be educated, and that remains the most intriguing part of our job: communicating with these customers, educating them, helping them to choose, is always satisfying. And it’s possible to do this because I have more time at my disposal than in the Italian bar, where you just tap the euro at the counter.”
As Lead Barista Coffee Circle Berlin, what do you do and how have you seen your profession change?
“We have three shops. I take care of the main one. I manage the staff, my assistant concentrates on shifts and orders, while I can focus on quality management, room control, customer relations. Basically, I am the manager of the coffee shop, but with a very special eye on coffee, preparing all the recipes, deciding which coffee to use and so on, and I have to manage 13 fantastic guys.
This division of labour helps the internal work. I’m in the car two days a week at the most and it was my request not to lose my hand. But the rest of the time I spend in meetings, with every member of my team, trying to improve together. I spend a lot of time with the staff and then also with the customers. Behind me I have people to whom I delegate specific daily and weekly tasks, so the coffee machine runs itself. For that you need to have a structure of resources. Everyone has their own clearly defined task with their own salaries.”
About the salary: is it so different from Italy for a trained professional?
“From what I know, it is different from my colleagues. Training is necessary here and therefore well paid. I can’t just hire someone at random and put them behind the machine. I need a resource who is able to move the machine as I say. The years of training are the calling card for consistency and quality, so the salary will be different.”
Is there a lack of staff there?
“I struggle to find just wait staff. But at the moment the bartenders and people who are able to be maître d’ are there. I have not experienced a great shortage. I am lucky enough to work for an ethical and sustainable company and we have good starting salaries, so we also attract staff from other companies. There is still generally little consideration among young people for this profession, because they don’t believe you can earn money from it. When I start training new recruits, I always try to get them to the next step right away, to become real professionals beyond the basic gestures.”
How did you react as outsiders to the pandemic in Berlin?
Gian Zaniol: “Here it was hard because the first lockdown I saw many places close as well as new ones open. The real luck here was that as a café, we no longer fell into the category of gastronomy but into that of selling basic necessities. So we were able to stay open, but only for takeaways.
The average German has a take-away culture. Half of the drinks I made went to takeaways, so it was possible to survive the first wave unscathed. People are going back to eating out. Here they not only need a supergreen pass but also an identity card. It’s annoying for us too, but we have to respect the rules: there is no shortage of controls, but people keep coming anyway. The numbers are positive, there’s no shortage of people wanting good coffee. We are very confident for the summer season and to return to the volumes of two and three years ago. We are already on the right track: our premises are always full.”
How is espresso seen there?
“Espresso is seen well. It’s the one I sell the most, even here where the filter is traditional (the V60, it’s German, the creator of the chemex is German, the first paper filters are Melita which is German and so on). When espresso started to expand, especially thanks to the specialties, it was true love, it remains the king of coffee. Let me explain: it is only since 1989 that coffee culture, with the fall of the wall and the reunification of Germany and the restart, has begun to expand. Before that, there was no espresso coffee and it was very difficult to find in the east anyway.
Then came the Third Wave, with its different philosophy of serving coffee, the possibility to drink espresso also outside the proper Italian bars became widespread. The new cafés caught on in a country where there was no strong cup tradition: when the specialty cafés arrived, they embraced this philosophy with a very open mind. That’s why so many cafés have opened in Berlin.
And what do you think about Unesco, Zaniol?
“Without Italian espresso none of us would be where we are now. In Italy it is not just a drink, but a cult, a way of experiencing coffee and the bar, which we have then made known to the whole world. Tradition as such must be protected. A different matter would be sustainability – it seems that many of us have only just discovered that large-scale production is not sustainable – and quality. So why see this recognition as a bad thing? It is a way of confirming Italy’s love for coffee. “
What kind of coffee do you serve?
“We have an offer of 22 different coffees including single orign and blends, half filter and half espresso. We have one fixed coffee in all our locations, a Brazilian natural Cerrado. The second one is changed every two months. The coffees are all direct trade. We started as an e-shop and then became an offline store. We also have dark roasted coffees with Robusta, in the Italian direction. They start with quality raw materials: a 60%40 a 75% 25% and a 100% Arabica, without bitter notes, towards chocolate, blue berry, why deny those who love traditional coffee a high quality product?”
Zaniol, do you have plans to return to Italy?
“Every now and then I ask myself this question and the brutal answer is: if I could get the same amount of money I earn here in Germany, I might think about it. But at the moment what I can do here is far away in Italy. It’s all about the perception of the general public. There are the speciality cafés that attract attention, but to do the numbers I do here, without serving alcohol, is a long way off. But I would like to.”
Do you have any projects in the pipeline?
“Apart from Coffee Circle I am currently focused on the Monument project. We’ve produced a great car that we now want to show off. There is always the idea of coming back to compete as a coach, but the goal is to be able to open a small coffee shop. It’s easier to start a business here, bureaucratically and financially. Even today, with a limited budget, it can be done in a month.”
Zaniol concludes for the young people: “Stay humble and work hard. Try to see what the situation is like in another country and confront different cultures. Now with my team, I feel blessed, because we cover nine different nationalities, with only one German (it happened!). It is interesting to understand the ways of relating to the world and the drink, in constructive comparison with other countries and backgrounds. Our champion Daniele Ricci is the example to follow: first he went to Holland, now he is in Switzerland, he doesn’t want to stop learning and comparing himself with other realities.”